My Favorite Album: Chris Sullivan on John Prine’s "John Prine" | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, July 9th, 2020  

My Favorite Album: Chris Sullivan on John Prine’s “John Prine”

“John Prine has this kind of ability to talk about very serious subjects in a very kind of unbiased way.”

Mar 31, 2020 Photography by Ryan West Issue #66 - My Favorite Album - Angel Olsen and Sleater-Kinney
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Actor Chris Sullivan strives to showcase his acting versatility in each role he takes on. That includes Toby Damon in NBC’s This Is Us, Tom Cleary in The Knick, Benny Hammond in Stranger Things, and Taserface in Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2. He attributes some of that tenacity stemming from a lifetime of listening to singer/songwriter John Prine, especially his 1971-released self-titled debut album. Prine also is a major reason Sullivan became a songwriter himself, writing songs under the moniker Joseph the Spouse.

“The way that John Prine writes songs, and the sense of humor and the poetry with which he kind of views the world, has definitely formed the way that I take things in,” says Sullivan.

Listening to Prine’s music reminds Sullivan not to show all the cards in his hands. As he puts it “you can write a sad song and you can sing a sad song, but if you sing a sad song sadly, it’s a hat on a hat, and it’s telling the listener what to feel. With John Prine, he’ll sing these songs and there is no indication of him trying to let you know how you should feel or what you should think about this story. He’s just kind of relaying it and putting it out there. It’s kind of how I approach acting and it’s definitely how I approach songwriting.”

Sullivan is drawn most to the songwriter’s debut because it was one of the first albums he listened to, thanks to his father.

“John Prine has this kind of ability to talk about very serious subjects in a very kind of unbiased way,”

Sullivan says. “I latched onto it as a kid, the stories that he was telling, because they seemed to be about things that I had no idea what he was talking about, but my imagination ran wild.”

Even at a young age, Sullivan was able to make some sense of the serious topics addressed.

“He just stepped into the country motif, but he was also singing songs against faux patriotism and songs against the war and things like that. I was able to catch on to some of those themes even at age six, seven, eight.”

One of these songs was “Sam Stone,” which is about a Vietnam veteran coming home and struggling with heroin addiction. Sullivan’s ears perked up when Prine sung “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

“For a six, seven, or an eight-year-old to try to figure out how someone sticks money into a hole in their arm, my imagination ran wild,” he says. “I just remember the songs since they were talking about these more adult topics, or psychedelic drugs. For my little kid brain, they would just send me off on these wild fantasies of trying to figure out what they were about, what this guy was talking about. So, it was kind of a little miniature acid trip without any drugs.”

As Sullivan’s grown up, he’s continued to listen to the album on a regular basis. He says the songs are “some of the greatest folk standards, bluegrass standards, country standards of all time to this day.”

“Between the comedy and tragedy and songs that get me really fired up and songs that make me really introspective, [this album] was unbelievably balanced,” Sullivan adds.

He hopes he can find that kind of balance in his own music. Sullivan is currently working on a new album with Dawes’ singer/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith.

“I texted [a verse to a song] to him and said, ‘Do you want to write a John Prine song?’” Sullivan says. “And within a day or two texting back and forth, we had finished this song that was in the style of John Prine, and that kind of set us off on our songwriting partnership.”

It turns out that Prine is a fan of This Is Us and watches it with his family. The singer even reached out to the production at one point about featuring one of his songs in the show. One season three episode was thus partly soundtracked by John Prine song “Angel from Montgomery.” It was extra special for Sullivan as it was the first song he learned to play on guitar.

“We’ve gotten a lot of really good news working on this show and a lot of really amazing people have responded to what we’re doing,” says Sullivan. “But, when I heard that John Prine watches the show, that’s about as emotional as I could get, when I heard that he was admiring something I had a part in. It kind of blew my mind.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 66 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.] 

www.johnprine.com

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